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The gendered nature of trolling

Last Friday, Michelle Smith published an essay reviewing Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl and discussing feminist memoirs in general. In it, Michelle highlights the abuse faced by women writers online:

Almost all of the writers describe receiving unrelenting abuse. The universality of online attacks against high-profile feminist writers indicates a concerted effort to shut down the opinions of vocal women. At times the attacks are deeply personal, in terms of criticising a feminist’s appearance or lack of femininity, a strategy that has been practised in print since the targetting of the suffragettes.

This article joins the wealth of others explaining the particular line of abuse women face online, both on The Conversation (here are a few examples) and elsewhere (this article from Angelica Jade Bastién on the New Republic is a good recent example).

The problem

The internet is rife with abuse. For every example of constructive and uplifting discussion there are multiple examples of something destructive or denigrating.

An article from Anastasia Powell and Nicola Powell detailed the scope of abuse online:

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed (62.3%) reported experiencing some form of digital harassment and abuse. One in five women overall, and two in five women aged 18 to 19 (37%), reported that someone had sexually harassed them.

“Overall, women and men were just as likely to report experiencing any form of digital harassment and abuse”, the explain. “However, the nature and impacts of these online harms differed significantly by gender and age.”

In her article discussing the case against Zane Alchin, a young man who pleaded guilty to “to bombarding young women on Facebook with graphic, sexually violent messages”, Emma A. Jane describes the nature of some of the abuse women face online:

The main purpose of posts like Alchin’s, however, is to shut women up and shut them down. The intention is to cause distress and remind women that many men view them as second-class citizens, whose raisons d’être are to serve as kitchen-dwelling, sandwich-making semen receptacles.

We’re not immune to this problem here at The Conversation. Our corner of the internet doesn’t see the scale or types of abuse seen elsewhere online but, that said, we have our versions of it.

Articles about women in prisons or women facing domestic violence are often filled with comments saying, essentially, “what about men” — derailing any chance of a discussion about the article’s actual content. Female commenters are regularly dismissed as being “too emotional” or “hysterical” or not being “reasonable” about a subject. Others face a kind of pervasive condescension: I’ve seen countless replies to women that begin with “My lady” or “My dear”.

To top it all off, commenters are accused of being sexist when they call out this behaviour.

What we do

This, of course, is a problem we take seriously. Removing discriminatory content has been a focus of my time here at The Conversation and we’ve seen some improvements as a result.

Consistent and effective moderation works to deal with a lot of the abuse we see and helps create a less toxic place for discussion. Commissioning articles about these types of issues highlights them and promotes constructive discussions; running Author Q&As on those articles helps get more people involved and author engagement in general helps lift the tone of comments overall.

When putting together and expanding our Community Council, we ensured that the reader portion was at least 50% women and thus mirrored our readership. Every Community Highlights post I publish features, more or less, an equal number of comments from men and women.

Taken in isolation, none of these things helps undo the gendered nature of trolling online, be it at The Conversation or elsewhere. But, together, they help reinforce what we want from our community: that it’s a place where people can have constructive, engaging discussions.

More can be done

We’ve made real progress here at The Conversation. My first day here involved sifting through dozens of vitriolic and abusive comments directed at women that were as outrageous they were unnerving. Now, a few years on, we don’t receive anything on that scale.

That’s not to say things are perfect: we still deal with the problems I described above. But we’re dedicated to improving things and we’ll continue looking for ways to do so.

The internet can be a hostile place at the best of times. The least we can do is try and provide some civility where we can.